Delta Stories: The Struggle for Equality and the Post Office at Helena (1904-1920)

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James Dean

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Wednesday, February 08th 2023
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Delta Stories
The struggle for equality and the post office at Helena (1904-1920)

African Americans faced both segregation and discrimination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leaders demanded change, but courts failed in that regard. Then came progressive President Theodore Roosevelt into office. Although his record was problematic, he became famous for his “Square Deal.” In late 1902, Roosevelt began to appoint African Americans to the U.S. Postal Service throughout the South. He also continued the practice of appointing local politicians who helped. This included Samuel Irving Clark, who had migrated to Phillips County, Arkansas from New Hampshire after the Civil War. In addition to being a leader in local Republican politics, he was a lawyer and real estate agent. In February 1902, Clark was nominated to be postmaster and approved by the Senate.

In May 1904, Samuel Clark was notified by the United States Government that four mail carriers had been appointed to serve Helena. All four men were African American. Their names were Charles S. Williams, Daniel Ankrum, Troy D. Wilson, and Murray C. Simmons. Three would be full time mail carriers and one a substitute. The full-time carriers received a salary of $850.00, and a substitute was paid $600. Although this does not seem like a large sum today, the average salary in 1904 was between $200 and $400 a year.

Charles S. Williams was born about 1873 in Mississippi before moving to Helena. Not much is known about his early life, but he married Willie May Roberts in 1911. Williams identified his profession as mail carrier in both the 1911 and 1917 city directories. By 1920, he and his family were living at 215 Holly Street in Helena and listed his occupation as postal worker.

Murray C. Simmons was born about 1873 in Mississippi and married Lucy Butler around 1902 in Phillips County. In 1917, he identified his profession as mail carrier and lived at 1129 Poplar. Mr. Simmons was married to Lucy and had three stepchildren. By 1920, Mr. Simmons had left the postal service and was working as a clerk with a publishing house at Helena and his wife taught school.

Troy D. Wilson had the most experience of all four men. He was born around 1861 in Alabama and first served as a railroad postal clerk in Monroe County, Arkansas. Soon after, the upward moving railway man moved to Helena. In 1895, there was a fire that partially damaged his residence on Walnut Street in North Helena. Because of his position with the railroad, Wilson was a respected man in Phillips County. In June 1895, he was asked to address the students at Phillips County Colored Normal School along with Elder G.W. Swan. Next came marriage. On April 2, 1901, Troy Wilson married E.A. Johnson. The couple next purchased a house on North Beech Street from E.C. Hornor for $500. Their address was identified as 1121 Beech Street in 1917 and he listed his occupation as postal worker. By 1920, Wilson had left the postal service however and listed his occupation as proprietor of a woodyard.

Daniel Ankrum was born about 1868 in Arkansas and married Jennie Whiting in 1900 at Helena. He listed his occupation that year as cook with his wife working at a machine shop. After becoming a mail carrier, the family began to do better because of his higher salary. In 1910, the couple adopted a daughter named Willie Mae Jones and they lived at 814 Rightor Street. Jennie listed her occupation as music teacher. Mr. Ankrum continued to work at the post office over the next two decades, but his wife passed away in 1944. He retired sometime before 1950. During the 1960s, his home was listed in the "Green Book" as a safe place for African Americans to stay while visiting Helena. His daughter Willie Mae married H.S. Barbour and operated the residence on Rightor.

Although their length of employment varied, these four men were instruments in the struggle for equality throughout the nation during the early 20th century. On a personal side, they were able to improve their stations in life and provide a better future for their families. While African American men employed by the postal service faced threats and intimidation throughout some regions, these four men at Helena stood their ground with Dan Ankrum being employed the longest. Racial discrimination prevented much advancement however, and by 1906 Roosevelt had even started lessening support for change. In 1908, Roosevelt’s successor William Howard Taft adopted a new relationship with the south. He refused to appoint any new African American postmasters. However, the number of African American postal employees continued to grow. From 1912 to 1920, African Americans faced even more restrictions under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Then in 1921, the Post Office Department and the Railway Mail Association agreed that the promotions of railway mail clerks be based on seniority and not on the old point system. This meant that postal clerks would be promoted regardless of race.


Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas) 26 May 1904, Thur. Page 1
The Helena Weekly World (Helena, Arkansas) 9 Jan 1895, Wed. Page 2
The Helena Weekly World (Helena, Arkansas) 10 June 1895, Wed. Page 2
The Helena Weekly World (Helena, Arkansas) 9 April 1902, Wed. Page 2
Pine Bluff Daily Graphic (Pine Bluff, Arkansas) 28 Feb. 1902 Page 8
“African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century – Who we are – About USPS home. “
“The Post Office Department and Jim Crow” American Postal Workers Union.

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